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Ford’s answer to the Beetle could have been a flip-front mid-engine turbine-powered death trap

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Doug Miller.

The Volkswagen Beetle, as we all know by now, sent shockwaves through the U.S. auto industry. Sure, imports had come and gone in the past, but they were usually considered outliers – cars for enthusiasts, immigrants, and crackpots – that hardly garnered any market share. And Ford’s initial response is worth examining because it illustrates how little some in the U.S. auto industry really understood the Beetle’s appeal.

While GM eventually responded with the Corvair, Rambler with the American, and Chrysler with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, Ford apparently did take notice of the little rounded air-cooled, rear-engine car as early as 1957, according to Jim and Cheryl Farrell’s “Ford Design Department Concept and Showcars, 1932-1961.”

The growing sales success of the Volkswagen was not lost on Ford’s engineers and designers, some of whom had foreseen the reason for the Volkswagen’s popularity, even before Ford’s market research people did. Robert McNamara liked the Volkswagen, and encouraged efforts by Ford’s engineers and designers to develop a similar car.

Ford’s engineers and designers weren’t averse to trying out any number of automotive configurations in the Fifties, and the task of finding a suitable counterpunch to the Beetle fell to Earle MacPherson and Gil Spear’s Special Vehicles Department, founded in May 1955. Specifically, it fell to Norm Nebozenko, Doug Miller, Bud Ward, and Jack Mills, who proposed the Midshipman, a smallish four- or five-seat forward-control sedan with plenty of unique features.

To begin with, one entered the Midshipman via a sort of clamshell door, hinged like a hood just under the split A-pillar. Spear had proposed a similar entry system – which he called the Strato-Door – on the Bimini, another Special Vehicles Department design, claiming that it facilitated entry into the car by allowing passengers and the driver to walk in and out of the car. To make entry somewhat easier, the Midshipman’s designers had the steering wheel and part of the column rotate upwards as the door opened and then back down into driving position as the door closed.

Because I appear to be the first person to write about this car in the meme era, I’m going to make the obligatory om nom nom reference.

In addition to the clamshell door, the Midshipman’s designers also included a conventional side door for the rear seat passengers and a tailgate and what amounts to a tonneau cover for access to the rear storage area, expertly foreseeing how pickup owners treat their beds like oversized trunks 60-some years later. And to make the tonneau cover hinge forward enough to permit access to the drivetrain, they designed the backlite to hinge upwards too. The designers were obviously very certain of Ford’s ability to craft a quality hinge.

Speaking of the drivetrain, the full-size design sketches of the Midshipman show it in a mid-engine configuration with what appears to be a water-cooled straight-six laid horizontally and an air-cooled opposed-six, but the Farrells note that the designers intended to cover pretty much every base with the Midshipman.

It was designed… as a front or rear-engined, front or rear-wheel-drive car, with an engine, transmission and drive unit that could be easily removed and replaced with a loaner, while the dealer made repairs to the driver’s unit. The Midshipman was so versatile that, in addition to being set up for both front and rear-wheel-drive, it was planned for either reciprocating or gas-turbine engines and for air and water-cooled engines.

It progressed as far as the aforementioned full-scale drawings and a 3/8-scale clay model before Ford dissolved the Special Vehicles Department in 1958.

While we want to like the idea of a mid-engine turbine-powered Ford competitor to the Beetle and will definitely bring one back should we ever encounter a production Midshipman while traversing the multiverse, the design had so many safety red flags that it likely would have drawn all of Ralph Nader‘s ire and given the Corvair a pass. To begin with, kiss everything south of the torso goodbye in a front-end collision. Even Martin Carl Fischer would’ve been horrified. While still on the topic of that door, sure it might’ve worked in ideal situations, but rollovers, low-overhead garages, and the inevitable need-to-bail-because-the-car-is-on-fire-and-we-lost-the-brakes-and-we’re-headed-for-a-cliff situation would prove disastrous.

Handling, based on the proposed cabin weight distribution, independent rear suspension, and forward-control driving position: Not impossible to design well, but the challenge would be to design it well at a price-point to compete with the Beetle.

Fuel tank location, right underneath your rear-seat passengers and just in front of a gas-turbine engine: Just remember to pack some marshmallows for the inevitable flambé.

We’re also not sure if the designers anticipated anybody would ever need to open a window. Though they did include window cranks in their drawings, so maybe?

Whatever the Midshipman’s drawbacks, its designers appear to have misunderstood all but one aspect of the Beetle’s appeal – its serviceability. They completely whiffed on its simplicity, on its inexpensiveness, and on its anti-status charm (fins? really?) by creating an overly complex, overly styled reach of a vehicle. Instead, it seemed, they were focused on quirk, on alternative drivetrain layouts, and on segment-busting while Volkswagen owners – at least in those initial years – just wanted a well-built and affordable car without all the frou-frou of contemporary American cars.

So, in a sense, the car that Ford did eventually produce to counter the Beetle – the Falcon – was not only the Midshipman’s polar opposite in many respects, it was also much better aligned with the typical Beetle customer.

SIDEBAR: It’s entirely conceivable that Ford’s Special Vehicles Department might have baselined the NAMI Belka, a Russian vehicle from 1956 that also had the odd combination of flip-front and conventional doors.

SIDEBAR 2: While Renault didn’t include a flip-front on its Ghia-bodied 1959 Project 900, the vehicle’s cab-forward, long-decklid profile is rather similar to the Midshipman and NAMI Belka.